“To my mind one kind of photography informs the other and gives you the experience to grow within the wider medium. That said, I am thinking about portraiture a lot at the moment and want to explore that more deeply as every face holds a lifetime of stories in a single expression. The conveyance of that within the limitation of a single frame is a real challenge.”
Mark Esper (born in 1968) is a documentary photographer from the UK currently based in London. For Mark Esper photography is a means to capture “missing moments, be they beautiful or seen from a usual perspective”.
Mark Esper, your portfolio shows a great variety. From documentary works to portraiture and editorial works. What does each genre mean to you and how would you describe yourself as a photographer?
I’d try to do it in the simplest way as possible. I take pictures. I witness events. I’m really wary of descriptions or tags because sometimes they can be limiting in themselves, when their original intention was to inform. I don’t see myself as a portraitist or any kind of photographer per se. I see different the forms of photography, be it shooting landscapes or whatever, as different disciplines inside a wider story telling medium.
To my mind one kind of photography informs the other and gives you the experience to grow within the wider medium. That said, I am thinking about portraiture a lot at the moment and want to explore that more deeply as every face holds a lifetime of stories in a single expression.
The conveyance of that within the limitation of a single frame is a real challenge. It’s feels very zen but I’m hoping the lessons I learn from this process will impact on my other work. It’s really bizarre for me because initially I thought photographing people was the last thing I wanted to do – but there you go.
What was your most memorable moment shooting pictures?
“Their shaking hands, the fumbled cigarettes, the awkward silences and sudden tears that would flow out of nowhere, all of which just underlined the desperateness of their situation.”
That’s a very difficult question. I don’t think there’s a precise moment but a definite memory for me was the taking of Kiarash Bahari’s portrait during his hunger strike of 2010.
Looking back through my photographs that image still reaches out and grabs me and bizarrely the memories it conjures up aren’t those in the actual photograph. The cold, the damp, the silent monotony as you watched these guys wait, and wait, and wait for somebody to intervene in their story.
Their shaking hands, the fumbled cigarettes, the awkward silences and sudden tears that would flow out of nowhere, all of which just underlined the desperateness of their situation.
In 2013 you received a Honorarium Award at the “Art of Photography Awards”. What do you think is important to stand out with one’s work? And how did you achieve it. Especially keeping in mind the over abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society.
“You can’t connect with an image if there’s nothing to hold your gaze.”
In a word, it has to be authenticity. The clear sense that what I am looking at is real. That this is a document of time: a photograph. Now, if that document employs light, mood and expression to create a connection where it asks a question or delivers a message – then that’s even better.
You can’t connect with an image if there’s nothing to hold your gaze. The more I go on, the harsher I find myself being with my previous work but saying that when that work is recognised as in competitions like “The Art of Photography Prize” it’s deeply touching.
What does photography mean to you? And what do you want to transmit with your pictures? And in other words: What is it at all that a photograph can say?
“Photography traps time and presents its truth in a format that really makes you consider the moments both before and after the photograph was taken.”
It’s a visceral reality. I’m not talking about blood and guts. I’m talking about a tactile quality where the photograph actually reaches out and touches you and holds you. For me a painting has a looser grip on time.
The impression that a scene or a subject has on an artist is built up over a longer period of time. It comes across as more reflective and considered impression of events. Photography traps time and presents its truth in a format that really makes you consider the moments both before and after the photograph was taken.
How would you describe your photographic voice and way of working? How do you plan and execute a project?
My photographic voice would seem to be in a state of flux. A lot of my friends say they know “my voice” and can easily pick out my photos from any page. And yet talking to a close mentor of mine he recently confided to me that he was mystified as to how “I’d made it so far without a one”. So there you go. I think he meant it as a compliment (hope so).
“Sometimes writing about what you’ve seen unlocks a different perspective and makes you re-evaluate what you’ve just shot in a good way.”
In terms of visuals, I take a lot of cues from classic paintings, in particular Caravaggio. His handling of light and arrangement of figures is nothing short of magnetic and always has guided my eye. When you’re working as a photojournalist you can’t arrange the pieces in front of you, but even with things happening so fast I can still feel that overarching aesthetic behind my eyes.
Once I’ve finished shooting I will usually create an interim edit with a written back story and then speak to either my agency (Polaris Images) or the client in question. Sometimes writing about what you’ve seen unlocks a different perspective and makes you re-evaluate what you’ve just shot in a good way. Quite often it’s good to involve other people early on so as to identify any holes or missing angles, particularly if it’s a long piece. Other times it’s so obvious or if there’s a time constraint in the form of breaking news that it goes out straight away. It depends, it’s a gut thing really in the end.
How involved do you get with your subjects? In other words: Do you rather pick the subject or does the subject pick you? For example in your work about the protests in London, “Occupy London”.
I chose that one but that’s not always the case. It varies. There are some projects that I plan, some that find me and others that are completely spontaneous and develop a life of their own. I always try to have several projects on the go so that way I’m always busy.
At the beginning of each project one often has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Was that the case with “Occupy London” and if so what did you learn during the project?
In the terms of a news event like “Occupy London” I try to go into it with a mixture of nativity and preparation. I want to know why something is happening (i.e. the background details) but I also want to walk in there with an open mind and a willingness to hear other people’s stories. If you stick too rigidly to a pre-conception you could well end up becoming blind to a richer story. More often than not it’s the personal stories of those involved that really creates a deep binding sense of identification.
“Whenever I’m walking into a hostile, transitory story I often look for the peripheral figures.”
People are interested in people. They have husbands, wives, sense and daughters who might be directly involved or thinking or expressing the same thoughts as the story you’re covering. Whenever I’m walking into a hostile, transitory story I often look for the peripheral figures. Those who are living on the edge of the story, dealing with the consequences of what’s happening.
You published a book called “Conflicted: London’s Faces of Protest”. Can you please tell a little bit of what’s it about?
Sure. I compiled a photographic journal of my experiences of following a year’s worth of protests in London with a series of portraits of those involved. It feels like a very long time ago. In fact in the end it didn’t sell much, but in terms of working with Robin Bell (the book’s editor) and the process of putting it all together, the experience was invaluable.
Mark Esper, every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
Before I was very dominated by visuals and now I’m thinking much more about story and being a witness to the story in front of me. The one thing that has definitely happened is that I’ve become a lot more ruthless when it comes to editing my stories. I guess it just happened naturally as process of having poured through hundreds and hundreds of photographs after each assignment.
“It was always shoot first, edit later. Now my process feels a lot more honed.”
After a while you can start to see your traits more easily. Some days I even feel the editing process start inside the viewfinder, inside my eyes and before I even press the shutter. That didn’t always use to be the case. It was always shoot first, edit later. Now my process feels a lot more honed.
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?
The ability to listen. A lot of my work is focused on people and by listening to them and the world around them it often gives me clues as potential photographs might develop. Recognising the moment before it “becomes” is a talent that all photographers need to develop. Having a visual eye is one thing but the ability to sense what might happen is just as key being able to recognise it when it does.
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes?
When it “connects”. When a recognition, a reflection, a sense of alarm or puzzlement arrests the viewer and makes them invest more deeply in what they are looking at. It’s like the photograph’s own frozen time freezes the viewer as well.
Then again with other photographs it might be a slower process where it reveals itself over a long period of examination – but there has to be something intrinsic with each photo to hold the eye and connect with the mind of the audience.
Mark Esper, what do you consider to be the greatest changes photojournalism has gone through in recent years and what will be the challenges in years to come?
“Before photojournalists were a select band of messengers carrying the their stories from afar. Now all of that has changed.”
With the advent of digital photography, the idea of photography itself has exploded. Today pretty much every device has a camera on it: phones, watches, laptops and so on. The taking photographs has become almost as ubiquitous as breathing. As a result there are so many more images now and as a consequence, there are so many more points of view.
Before photojournalists were a select band of messengers carrying their stories from afar. Now all of that has changed. As the number of available images has swollen and prices have dropped some would argue that a career in photojournalism has become financially impossible. Yes, it is tougher – but to me the odds are the same as before. It’s still you against a whole world of other photographers out there. Sure there are now there a lot of more contenders but the demand for quality remains the same. The real question is: “Is this a challenge you want to meet?”
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
Q: I was once asked this in a recent interview and I couldn’t find a decent answer for it at the time: “If you could have any super power what it be?”
A: I had to laugh at the time but now thinking about it a bit more the answer’s obvious: to be able to speak any language.
As I move through more and more countries and cultures the ability to communicate thoughts and ideas seems to be such a freedom to me. When I listen to people talking in their own languages, you can see the increased engagement in their eyes and the raised sound in their voices. They become more alive. Now that level of connection and understanding would be something really worth having.
That said, I guess I already have it. Like music, photography can crash through boundaries without a single word ever being said.